Archive for July, 2009

Our Loudoun Bird Atlas has brought some great stories – here’s the latest from Joe Coleman in his sector:

This morning I decided to survey one of the private properties in my neighborhood for the Loudoun County Bird Atlas.  With nesting season rapidly winding down and most birds no longer within safe dates I didn’t expect to find much but was hopeful I’d add one or two species.  Because I haven’t been able to confirm nesting Bobolinks in my blocks this year, I hoped they might be on this property as it has had them in the past.  This 90-acre parcel is largely meadow with a nice perennial stream as well as some nice wetlands near the stream (neither visible from the road), and all of it is protected by a conservation easement.  Because the stream’s riparian buffer includes a no-mow area that section can be especially productive.
On the walk there I saw an American Kestrel begging food from one of its parents as well as some juvenile Eastern Meadowlarks, both of which had been confirmed for the survey earlier this summer.  One of the reasons I really wanted to check out this parcel was that the meadow was only hayed about a week ago.  Bobolinks, one of our latest nesters, have a hard time in our area because of haying and virtually every other field Bobolinks had nested in previously had been mowed either in late June or early July including one that another neighbor usually leaves until late just for the Bobolinks. 
As I neared the stream and the no-mow area, a really odd looking bird, with odd splotches of color hopped up on a goldenrod plant.  It had a large black patch on its chest.  It was followed by a couple of other birds with a wide variety of odd colors in odd places.  Then a female Bobolink popped up followed by a couple of begging juvenile Bobolinks and I realized the first few were male Bobolinks in the midst of molt.  The dozen or so birds looked like a bunch of clowns except for the adult females.
In addition to the Bobolinks who entertained me for some time there were at least 25 Purple Martins, two of who were food begging, and a dozen of Barn Swallows, a couple of whom were also food begging.  There was also a Willow Flycatcher who I heard calling long before cresting the hill down to the stream.
While the Bobolinks were the only new confirmation for the atlas, it was nice to find so much continuing evidence of successful nesting with species well outside of their safe dates.
Joe Coleman
near Bluemont, VA


To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.

- John Burroughs


Please Take Action by Attending this Public Input Session: On Wednesday, July 29 at 7pm, Supervisor Kurtz, along with other members of the county, will hold a public meeting to hear the county’s plans to realign the Woods Road. This is a serious threat to the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve. The location for the meeting is 215 Depot Court in Leesburg. Please come out to show your support for Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve!

banshee_july_25_09Loudoun County claims that the landfill’s expansion requires that The Woods Road be shifted from its current location into the preserve itself. If this occurs it could seriously harm the preserve’s natural values and destroy a rare natural habitat.

First we need to ask if this relocation is necessary at all. The county claims it is necessary based on a special exception that was passed over 15 years ago.

Lots has changed since then and it is hard to believe that this still the case especially when one considers how valuable and special the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve is.

1) Seriously degrade, if not destroy, a rare natural habitat, a Mountain/Piedmont Basic Seepage Swamp, of which there are only 12 examples known in Virginia.

banshee_rabbit_July_25_092) Seriously impair the integrity of the entire natural preserve which is a mix various different kinds of habitats including the large, intact upland forest that The Woods Road would bisect. It will disrupt wildlife habitat, destroy wetlands and other sensitive areas.

3) Create a paved road with a minimum speed limit of 35/mph right next to a natural area and result in excessive and unnecessary amounts of roadkill.

4) Destroy an historic road that has existed for over two centuries and linked the Carolina Road to Oatlands Plantation.

5) Possibly destroy other archaeological treasures along this historic road.

6) Violate an existing Virginia Outdoor Foundation conservation easement.

banshee_reeks_3_july_25_09At the March 2008 meeting on The Woods Road, in response to concerns raised by its citizens, the county indicated they would create a transparent process and involve various stakeholders in the development of their plans for The Woods Road. Inexcusably this has not happened. To our knowledge the public has not been involved in any of the deliberations that have occurred since March 2008. This is not a transparent process and is indicative of a county handling business as they always have and ignoring citizens and their concerns for the environment.

The Woods Road as it exists today is an historic dirt road steeped in both natural and cultural history that forces people who drive on it to slow down; to protect the treasure that is Banshee Reeks, it should stay the same.

Please attend this meeting! Let’s fill the room and show our support for Banshee Reeks! In addition, email your Supervisor and let them know how much you value Banshee Reeks and keeping it as it is!


So we held our first evening amphibian foray into the woods last night.  The plan was to enjoy the Gray Tree Frog chorus at the Blue Ridge Center, since in past years, the chorus was in full swing this time of year. The Gray Tree Frogs, however, must have missed the note because they stayed quiet all evening.

That was ok though, since lots and lots of American Toads and Green Frogs, as well as one Bullfrog, were out andGreen_Frog_July_25_2009 about.

We started the evening with a short talk about amphibians and Gray Tree Frogs in particular, looked at photos of the frogs (including the egg and tadpole stages as well as frog scat!) and listened to a recording of the Gray Tree Frogs calling so we all knew what to listen for. 

We had 18 people on the walk with us, three of whom were burgeoning (6-8 year old) herpetologists. As we headed out along the trail, it didn’t take long to find our first American Toad crossing the path.  The three young boys hopped into action and caught it so we all could see.

We stayed at the pond near the visitors center for a bit as we listened to the Green Frogs calling and swimming through the green duckweed. We then headed down to Piney Run stream to see if we could hear some other species….like our elusive Gray Tree Frogs. Along the walk, we must have encountered at least 15 more American Toads – of all shapes and sizes. We had just had a light rain and it was humid so they were no doubt out hunting for their dinners.

Along Piney Run, we listened for a bit, observed some bats feeding just over the tree tops, and scanned the trees for any eyes watching us. After a pause here, we headed back to the pond. By this time, it was dark and the Green Frogs, with their banjo twang, were in full song. We used our headlamps and flashlights to scan the pond and saw lots of eyes reflecting back. It was great to see so many of them.

We wrapped up a little past 9pm and headed back to the visitor center where we found another toad hunting around the house. It was fun doing a nightime nature walk and we look forward to doing it again. Keep an eye on the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Programs Calendar for more events like this.


Ten people, including a couple celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary, participated in the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s free monthly bird walk, led by Joe Coleman & Larry Meade, at the Blue Ridge Center this morning and found 56 species in the fields and woods there. 

After listening to a couple of Grasshopper Sparrows and the first of many (maybe 30) Indigo Buntings we carpooled toBRCES_Bird_Walk_Al_Eddy the southern edge of the center at the end of Sawmill Rd.  From there we walked along the western edge of the field where we heard and saw a variety of birds including a couple of White-eyed Vireos but missed on the Blue-winged Warblers and Chats that nest in that area. 

We then followed Butterfly Alley to Sweet Run & into the dense forest along the stream to the Arnold Rd Trail.  Within 200 yds of entering the woods we started hearing numerous Acadian Flycatchers (about one every 100 yards or so) and a few Wood Thrushes, but not a single Kentucky Warbler or Ovenbird, both of which were common in this area just a few weeks ago.  However, we did start hearing and then finally got great looks at several Scarlet Tanagers, a few of which were beginning to molt.

We took a side trip to Gordon Pond where we heard and saw a number of the same forest species as before and added a few more including several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  After visiting the Gordon Pond we returned to the Little Turtle Trail where a few of us heard a Worm-eating Warbler. 

Louisiana_Waterthrush_Al_Eddy_BRCESAfter crossing Piney Run we took the Farmstead Loop back to the Visitor Center, arriving there about 12:15.  There was a flurry of activity around the small pond near the Visitor Center, including a very cooperative Louisiana Waterthrush which posed for photos.  We added a couple more species, including a Raven, while tallying on the porch. 
When we drove back to Sawmill Rd to pick up our cars about 12:30 there was a Blue-winged Warbler in the hedgerow next to the parking area.
In addition to a lot of different butterflies, we also saw two large Black Snakes, one high in the trees where there was a lot of bird activity and one high on the side of one of the old stone houses on the center. There were also American Toads all along the trail and numerous green frogs at the pond. It was a great day for exploring Loudoun nature!

Al Eddy caught some great nature and wildlife photos during the walk and a few are included here in this post. 

Number of species:     56

Green Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Mourning Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, ChimneyAmerican_Toad_BRCES_Al_EddySwift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Fish Crow, Common Raven, Barn Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Blue-winged Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Grackle, Orchard Oriole, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow


Just a reminder about our Magic of Monarchs program coming up this Sunday at the Ashburn Library.Cerro-Pelon-Feb-25-2009-220 This will be both an educational program about the amazing lifecycle of the monarch butterfly (and some cool facts that you may not know yet) as well as a chance for me to share the experience of the trip I took to the Monarch Sanctuaries this past February.

Here are the details. I really hope you can make it:

MAGIC OF MONARCH BUTTERFLIES ― Sunday, July 26, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., at the Ashburn Library. Nicole Hamilton traveled to the mountains of Mexico this past February to explore the monarch butterfly sanctuaries and visit with the monarchs that, last fall, departed from Virginia and other parts north to migrate to the sanctuaries for winter. What she saw in these mountain respites was phenomenal and she’s returned to not only share this experience with you but also talk about the great Monarch migration, their lifecycles and their habitats, both here and in Mexico. Handouts will be available on creating your own Monarch Waystation as well as travel tips for those wanting to make this pilgrimage. Join us at 2:00 p.m. at the Ashburn Library, 43316 Hay Road, Ashburn VA, to meet the speaker and have refreshments. This program is appropriate for all ages.  Questions: contact Nicole Hamilton at

For more environmental education opportunities and nature programs and field trips, visit the calendar section of our website.


Butterflies, they are like dream flowers,
childhood dreams, which have broken loose from their stalks
and escaped into the sunshine.
Air and angels.

- Miriam Rothschild


Our two nature camp sessions have wrapped up for the season but a good time was had by all!  Our summer intern, Eleni Katsos, helped with the camp and sent over a nice write-up from the two, week-long camps:

nature_camp_2009_3The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Natural History Day Camp of 2009 took place once again at Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Leesburg, Va. Banshee Reeks is a beautiful place to learn about nature in a variety of ecosystems, and gives a glimpse into both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.

The kids attended camp for a week, each day themed toward a different aspect of wildlife. A usual day at camp consisted of a morning talk about what we would be learning about that day, followed by a one to two hour hike, creative activities and games. Talking and learning about the subject before going out “into the field” helped to put what the campers saw out on the hikes into context, and really cemented an appreciation for what they saw.

For example, there was a day dedicated to trees, which entailed learning the names of the trees we encountered along our walk, using the senses such as smell and touch, as well as specific morphology to identify and remember them. The role of trees in the environment was also a focus for the day, their importance for soil quality and carbon control, as well creating habitat for a plethora of animals and insects.

We played a great game called Hug-a-Tree that encouraged fun with this aspect of the environment. During the game one partner leads the other blind folded around the forest, preferably in a disorienting path, to a tree. Once there, the blind folded player feels the tree for things that are memorable, such as the texture of the bark, the shape of its leaves, the number of branches, etc. They are then lead back to the starting point, unmasked, and must find their tree with the guidance of their partner telling them if they are getting warmer or colder. This game was as much fun to watch as it was to play.

nature_camp_2009_2Ellie Daley, one of our camp counselors and retired kindergarten teacher, planned excellent creative activities for the kids to do each day. She created nature journals for the kids to work on after lunch, creating a time and place to reflect through drawing, or writing. She also helped the campers decorate t-shirts with imprints of natural objects on tie dye-like backgrounds such as leaves and feathers using solar paint.

Aside from the scheduled activities for the day, campers were also encouraged to discover the nature that interested them. If they found an insect that couldn’t be identified for instance, they had time when back from the hike to look through the library of information and I.D. books. It creates a stronger connection to the experience when the answer has to be discovered rather than just given, and it also helps the kids get a feel for how to identify something that they find in the wild. To quote “Mr.Phil”, the camp’s founder and head counselor, “you can know a lot about wildlife and nature, learn about it for years, and still not know it all.”

nature_camp_2009_5The camp culminated with family day, where relatives were invited to eat homemade vanilla ice cream, and enjoy a pill bug race with campers. Pill bugs, also known as rollie pollies in the common vernacular, are insects that like to live in damp, covered places, like under a stump. Earlier in the week, we talked about where to find pill bugs for the race, and how to create a proper habitat for them. The race was conducted in a derby-style, and was a lot of fun all-around, hearing cheers for pill bugs with names such as, “Rags-to-Riches” or the sometimes slow “Speedy”.

The campers had a great time and learned a lot about the natural world around them. I know my memories from camp are some of my fondest and I hope the knowledge and experiences they gained from Natural History Day Camp will be remembered in the same manner.

Check out photos from nature camp on our Facebook page.


We had a lovely day for our butterfly and dragonfly walk last Saturday morning at Claude Moore Park in Sterling. With a slight breeze and upper 70s, it was perfect for not only the insects that we were looking for but also for all of us.  Twenty-two people came out for the walk and it was great to have so many kids along with us!  Being lower to the ground they’re great at spotting and helping with netting.

We started the walk at the garden in front of the visitors center and came across a number of butterflies known asclaude_moore_park_dragonfly_walk_1 skippers.  Larry Meade helped with the id as these little guys often look similar with their brown and orange colors.

We then walked along the field and caught our first dragonfly. Andy Rabin, our leader for the walk, demonstrated the right way to use a net without harming the insect and showed the group how to hold a dragonfly without hurting it’s wings.

From here we meandered over to the little garden pond behind the house.  Green frogs were calling and were very comfortable with us checking them out.  We also saw our first Wood Nymph butterfly of the day.  Normally less common, this butterfly became the most frequently spotted butterfly for us, with many regular species going unseen. We think the late spring rains have something to do with this.

claude_moore_park_dragonfly_walk_2As we walked through the field on the other side of the house, one of the kids spotted a Wandering Glider dragonfly. With Andy’s guidance, he put the net over the top of the dragonfly and it gracefully flew to the top as Andy predicted. Andy then removed it from the net. We all got to see the dragonfly close up and the kids got the experience holding a dragonfly (using the proper technique :) ). They seemed to really enjoy it!

For the finale of the walk, we headed to the ponds. While female dragonflies hang out more near fields, males are over at the ponds patrolling their territories along the pond bank. I’ll provide a full list of our species seen below.  While enjoying the dragonflies, we also spotted a Pearl Crescent butterfly which we put into a small viewing container for a few minutes for greater inspection.

All in all, a wonderful day, butterfly numbers and diversity were fewer than in the past but the dragonflies made a nice showing!

Here’s the full list of what we saw:

Dragonflies and Damselflies:Common Green Darner, Prince Baskettail, Halloween Pennant, Slaty Skimmer,Widow Skimmer, Common Whitetail, Blue Dasher, Wandering Glider, Spot-winged Glider, Eastern Amberwing, Carolina Saddlebags, Black Saddlebags, and Familiar Bluet.

Butterflies:Spicebush Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Clouded Sulpher, Eastern-tailed Blue, Silvery Checkerspot, Pearl Crescent, Red-spotted Purple, Common Wood Nymph, Monarch, Common Sootywing, Least Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Zabulon Skipper, Dun Skipper.

If you’d like to get your fill of butterflies this season – sign up for our Loudoun County Butterfly Count!  It’s a great way to explore nature, contribute to citizen science and learn some new species of butterflies.  All experience levels are welcome.  We form teams that are led by experienced butterfliers (that’s a new word :) ) and you can participate for the full day or just park of the day.

We also have a program this Sunday, The Magic of Monarchs – you can read more about that in our July nature programs calendar. I’ll be talking about the Monarch butterfly life cycle, habitat here and in Mexico, and the amazing phenomena of their migration to Mexico. Great for all ages!


Kurt shared another great write-up from his Loudoun Bird Atlas explorations – check out this latest entry to see what great birds he encountered:

The weather report for last weekend was hot & humid – a return to the “normal” conditions of other past July’s in Northern Virginia.   I tried to get out early, but its sooo… hard what with wanting to add some extra sleep and all after the usual weekday toil.  Jan Frye joins me on Saturday morning – her first atlas outing.  A spirited and skilled novice, she can find birds which is always welcome when one does atlases or counts or such.  We arrived close to 7am at RoundUp Ct, just east of Aldie (part of the block known as Middleburg 2), with a plan to upgrade previously found species as we continue westward. This day, I hope to get to the Blue Ridge by mid-morning, as I have some access points to the forest there.

We quickly see a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk.  I had heard a juvie nearby a couple of weeks earlier, along Tail Race Rd, and I am sure it’s the same bird or a nest mate.  A wonderful bird to gaze upon, its perched in a tree near the road and follows our car’s movement intently.  It flies away once we get within 30 yards or so.  We head for a spot that had Prairie Warblers last week, where the medium-aged Red Cedars meet some bushes along an asphalt road spur.  Jan quickly notes a singing Prairie on this spur and we go to foot.  The warbler moves from cedar to bush and in-between, chipping incessantly – I am sure young are nearby but we see only the adult male.  Nearby, a Gray Catbird flies into the same brushy edge surrounded by the Red Cedars – and towhees call nearby.  With hardly a sound, a White-eyed Vireo appears, making soft cat-like whines until another comes to it for a brief moment – then parts as the food is delivered to its waiting mouth. Unfortunately, the young Prairie Warbler is not nearly as cooperative, so we move on after about 20 minutes.

We head over to Tail Race Rd which has a few potential breeders to add to the atlas, such as Grasshopper Sparrow. We quickly spot one of the sparrows on the wooden rail fence and set the scope on it.  It only sings today, moves into the field, then back to fence &tc.  Fortunately Jan notes an Eastern Meadowlark perched up on a nearby bit of weed with something in its bill.  The scope lets us see the food item and thus the species is confirmed for the block.  Very nice.

The question often arises, how can one can confirm any bird as a breeder, what with the sheer serendipity of actually finding a particular representative doing something like carry a food item, or nesting material.  But, as us geeks like to exclaim, “it’s a numbers game” which is another way to say it all boils down to statistics.  Let me explain.  There are large numbers of birds of many species in the block we atlas and so finding any of them doing a “breeding thing” is not that much of a stretch. 

Consider Northern Cardinals.  Beautiful birds and quite common in our area, most often found in edge habitats with bush components.  I know there is at least one pair in my backyard neighborhood adjacent to Huntley Meadows – this location has an area of about 1-2 acres.  To estimate the breeding density in Loudoun County, I examined the USGS breeding bird survey (BBS) data easily found on the net. The appropriate Loudoun County BBS route is known as Taylorstown – which produced an average of 42 Northern Cardinals each year.  Now these BBS data derives from 50 stops where the volunteer counts everything that moves or peeps at each one.  And, a good observer can detect birds at 100 yards or more.  So, each stop covers an area of over 6 acres.  Which means that, on average, there are about 0.13 Northern Cardinals per acre (or, about a 1 in 8 acres) for the Taylorstown route. 

Using the 1 in 8 acres figure, you can see that for the 10 square mile Loudoun atlas blocks that are being atlased, the estimated number of Northern Cardinals in a block is 800.  Considering that these birds are all busy doing breeding activities in May, June and probably July, then it’s no wonder that these birds are one of the species most quickly confirmed per block in the atlas.  But, the really neat thing is that American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds and Chipping Sparrows have similar population densities.  And so, these species are also relatively easy to confirm as breeders.

The numbers game really wins out

We head west, eventually arriving on Willisville Rd in the block known as Bluemont 5.  This spot has had a Willow Flycatcher for several weeks.  We watch and wait.  I walk a nearby field edge as a Field Sparrow has been present – I hear the Willow Flycatcher so turn about, retracing my steps.  Jan is watching from the other side of the habitat.  We both see and hear the Willow as it flies across its territory – a small patch less than an acre in extent (maybe half an acre).  Willow trees and other deciduous kinds edge the side Jan is at, near the corn field; the other side – on which I am located -  is a hay field. Across the road, another hay field. The ditch is wet, and a wet swale runs through the habitat preferred by the Willow – bushes, grasses and a short tree (and popular singing spot for many of the residents such as Song Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and Brown Thrasher). The Willow flies across and it looks a bit odd – Jan notices it first, food in bill.  A close look reveals a largish black bug.  It flies across to the Willow Tree edge, carrying the bug while emitting soft “wits”.  And we leave with a nice confirm for breeding.

We make it to the Blue Ridge near mid-morning.  We visit a backyard of a helpful resident.  Chipping Sparrow is singing in the yard and a nest with 2 young Eastern Phoebes is under the eaves of the house.  Down the road, we visit another area and move up several species to the probable designation as towhees, Wood Thrush, and American Redstarts are singing in the same spots as last week. What is surprising is that both Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird are in the forested area, too.

Near noon, and with other responsibilities calling, we head home.

I return the next day, arriving at the blue ridge location near 7 am.  I am lucky – an Eastern Screech Owl whinnies a few times, unseen, perhaps a 100 yds away.  It takes about an hour of exploration to find a Red-eyed Vireo nest with 2 young in and one standing nearby.  I think these birds are running 1-2 weeks behind piedmont breeders.  I spot a hummer (female) up here and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak makes a return show, this time I spot the male looking quite bright.  But the real payoff lay nearby – the chips I heard last week I here again today.  I wait and look, go away and come back. Finally, I find the birds.  Worm-eating Warblers, one in the lead and the other following, occasionally opening its mouth.  A really surprising breeding confirmation.  Nearby, I finally hear the male softly trill the song. Yes…..

Heading down and east to where the foothills meet the piedmont, I visit a few roads and upgrade potential breeders.  I lucked into 2 Eastern Wood Pewees on a tree limb over a driveway, making very loud begging noises.  It’s getting late in the morning and by 11 I come across stretches with very little activity – yep, the heat is on.  I find that when it gets hot, bird song and activity greatly decreases.  I continue east, trying a few spots here and there, but failing to find any new breeders. My last stop is Tail Race Rd, arriving after noon, and I hear a Blue Grosbeak calling from a wooded edge near the road. I stop and after a few minutes of looking find it with a fledged bird.
Kurt Gaskill